Bruckner Faces Exodus Following Bounty Of Modern

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Ellen Reid, right, accepts applause after the world premiere of her new work by the New York Philharmonic.
(Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK – The New York Philharmonic concert on Feb. 20 was, if not upside-down, contemporary in more ways than one. A world premiere by Ellen Reid was followed by Renée Fleming performing songs by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and by the Icelandic artist Björk. The unlikely second half was Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, known as the Romantic. This odd mix made quite the showcase for music director Jaap van Zweden.

Judging from the empty seats in Geffen Hall after intermission, listeners came for the new work, or for the renowned soprano trying out Björk. Then they took a pass on the symphony, which in former days was what they would have come out to hear.

Spoken introductions forced the Reid and the Björk into a context of current reality. Reid’s 10-minute When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist is one of 19 Philharmonic commissions from women for Project 19, a nod to the centenary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the vote. Reid was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and the MCANA Award for Best New Opera for p r i s m, an opera for two singers and four dancers, and has been visible ever since, in chamber music, art, and film.

Before the performance, she described “tracing a new, dizzying feeling, good and bad,” and suggested that recent world events have given the audience similar feelings of being unmoored. (There was a ripple of assent.) And Fleming, before singing Björk’s “Virus” (“I feast inside you”), took a microphone and reminded listeners that this selection had been planned long before the frightening coronavirus outbreak.

Renée Fleming performing with the Philharmonic under Jaap van Zweden.

When the World… is a sympathetic piece, reaching out for understanding rather than making an off-putting statement. It begins with high percussion, closely woven and jingling, before becoming string-heavy and clinky. Off to one side, Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver, and Esteli Gomez moan in harmony. (These sopranos come from Roomful of Teeth, the choral octet that brought forth Caroline Shaw, who has also been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Project 19 commission, to be heard later.)

The orchestra, building, pounds and gallops on, with bass drum, to wordless wailing; clots of brass shoot out. An isolated flute takes over, joined by cymbals and other instruments. The piece calms down, all play lyrically and dwindle off. So we’ll be okay, maybe.

Fleming’s Björk songs were preceded by two Hillborg Strand Settings, composed for her. They are from the Canadian-American poet Mark Strand’s 45-poem cycle, and had their premiere in 2013 with the Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. So they were familiar sledding to Fleming. (Words appeared on a surtitle screen, though Fleming’s diction is chiseled and fabulous.)

“Dark Harbor XXXV” evokes the words, “Kisses are the subject” in rushing sounds, plucked and swizzling strings, and cymbals.  The vaguely lyrical voice line has huge intervals – a couple of them, like “the mascara of Eden,” too high for her, but so what? “Dark Harbor XI” is in a Samuel Barber mode – Knoxville: Summer of 1915 or “Sure On This Shining Night” – brought out in phrases like “overflowing of mildness” and “Of our freedom while still the captives of dark.” The poem’s last verse calls up “terrible omens of the end,” which Reid also worries about.

Van Zweden ended the program with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.

Björk, the Icelandic singer/songwriter, ranges over musical borders in her eclectic style, drawing on influences and genres from – in part – electronic, pop, classical, and avant-garde. Fleming’s two choices are art song, original and pleasurable: “my host is you…My sweet adversary, oooh oooh” is easy to hum after the concert. Fleming has been dipping into jazz since her Potsdam college days hanging out in Alger’s Pub. It’s probably harder than it looks to get the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect, but Fleming is a stylish champion. Björk’s version is on YouTube.

About face to the 67-minute Bruckner on the concert’s plump second half. A famous Wagner acolyte, Bruckner knew a thing or two about brass. The symphony has plenty of tunes loud enough to impress, and ample fat-bottom passages. (The orchestra’s principal horn position hasn’t been filled yet, and a couple of brass mishaps were surely attended to in the two repeat concerts.)  Van Zweden, to quote Scripture, showed strength with his arm, and in the second movement drew smooth, rich, delicious sound. This is, of course, one of the great orchestras.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.